Every question has an answer in this place, so long as it is abaout coffee, history, and Balat!
Mister Serhat Ersürel, founder of Cumbalı Kahve (Bay Window Coffee House) is a magnificent man. He has given years of his life for this work, all but specialized in coffee and presentation, and he welcomes his precious guests with his deep knowledge of history, after learning and knowing everything there is to know about Balat. Cumbalı Kahve may be just one of the 115 cafés in Balat, but it maybe is the most specialized among them.
Mr. Serhat begins talking by telling us “We make only and only coffee here”, and continues “I am even more pleased when my customers ask for coffee with no or little sugar.” When we ordered coffee with no sugar without knowing this when he asked how we would prefer the coffee he was to treated us to, he displayed his contentment through his body language, as if saying “that’s it”. He virtually created a coffee civilization inside a 9.5 m2 store. He does not offer chocolate or Turkish delight with the coffee, saying “That spoils the taste of coffee” and breaking the mold. “We, as Cumbalı Kahve, prepare brewed filter coffee and high-quality Turkish coffee together with all techniques and unknown aspects and offer them to our customers. We prefer coffee to be with no sugar. This enables us to better perceive the tastes, scents, and aromas inside coffee. In fact, there are some false facts that people think are right about Turkish coffee. For instance, time to consume, the manner of crushing, use of correct pH, and coffee cups. We try here to use all these along the methods we know to be true.”
The store of Mr. Serhat may be small but his horizons go far beyond. He may tell you anything and everything you are curious about coffee. He even sells Jamaica Blue Mountain, Hawai Cona, Panama Esmeralda Geisha, Yemen Mocca that are among the best 10 coffees of the world and products like coffee fruit Cascara, and he can tell everything there is to know about all these products.
“Besides water, coffee is the cheapest drink in the world. Our familiarity with coffee begins at around the year 1517 when Özdemir Pasha, governor of Yemen that was conquered stage by stage since the age of Yavuz Sultan Selim, presented coffee to the palace; and coffee was then most liked at the palace. The public also appreciated coffee, after which coffee began popular in our culture. Orderly coffee farms were first established in Yemen by the order of the Ottomans. Thus we introduced Turkish coffee, the only coffee cooked over fire different from other cooking and brewing methods, to the world. So there is something called Turkish coffee in world literature. When an Italian comes to this store, we have a hard time having him drink our coffee, Turkish coffee, he has his own culture and he preserves his own culture. You cannot have him drink it, it is just not possible. And here we are, as Cumbalı Kahve, trying to form our own culture, an informed Turkish coffee culture. You cannot find anything other than coffee here. There is no tea in this store. Neither breakfast nor anything else. There are coffee and water. Well, there is also Balat, there are history and books.”
Following a brief smile, Mr. Serhat continues telling. We understand from what he tells that he follows all local or foreign masters about coffee. He goes on, “Try, go and try at every coffee store. Sample the coffees of different coffee roasters. Try, always try and find the coffee that is best for you and your taste. Even then after finding the perfect coffee for you, still, continue trying new tastes from time to time.”
When you visit Cumbalı Kahve, this small but one of the rarest of places to visit of Balat and even of the country, the place itself tells you of so many things that you say to yourself, ‘This store, this owner of the store, they really went through so much experience.’ Mr. Serhat gives you such coffee techniques and hints that you even begin to question your coffee habits. He explains to you about all things coffee, from the cup choice you use to whether to use ground or roasted coffee, the right consistency and the time to offer each. We can say that Cumbalı Kahve enjoys a magnificent experience in regards to the coffee repertoire. He may explain all techniques for many minutes and will not forget to tell at the end, “I make only and only coffee here.” This is the kind of place it is and this is the kind of person Mr. Serhat is.
Cumbalı Kahve and its experienced owner is not merely a coffee expert. He also has other fields of expertise. He came to know many different cultures closely. He says, “You cannot become localized without becoming universalized, you have to know closely the people and the tourists to whom you are to sell coffee.” and continues, “I have read many many books for the 5 years before opening up this store, I know as much Greek history as any Greek, as much Jewish history as any Jew, and as much Armenian history as any Armenian.” And going on after highlighting that he is a complete admirer of Balat, he says, “This place is the new rising trend of İstanbul. So to say, in this quarter which was neglected until recently, million dollars are spoken now. Now everybody comes to visit Balat with tours lead by local guides and contributes significantly to the economy of the quarter. I think that as a person living in Balat, I should know this place like the palm of my hand. When our guests come, we have to direct them to the best breakfast café, best restaurant, best soup store, best meatball store, best tripe store, and best dessert store, because we lead the way for them to come back to Balat when they receive the best services. Guides know me well, they always come and go, I gather information from them and they gather information from me.”
Cumbalı Kahve is an utterly decent place at the corner of the street. It has a very elegant design, and books strike your attention right in the center of the place. These books are mostly about Balat and coffee. Such as Fener-Balat-Ayvansaray of Ahmet Faik Özbilge and Topraktan Fincana Kahve (Coffee from the Soil to Your Cup) of Cenk R. Girginol. Serhat places so much importance on these two books. He points of reading and improve oneself by telling us, “I read a lot of books but I prefer to read books about Balat and coffee as a priority, and of course history books. Because my store is in Balat, and I am a businessman offering coffee. It would be a great failing for me if there was a new development about my field and I do not know it.”
When you enter Cumbalı Kahve, you will see over the door writing that perhaps you may see nowhere else. Let this be a surprise for you to get curious about until you go visit. From that very writing you will understand that, just as Cumbalı Kahve, also its owner Mr. Serhat looks into life with certain rules, and provides us with many lectures on life as if saying ‘you have to have a story of yourself, it will not do otherwise’. Besides these, while Cumbalı Kahve is utterly particular and strict in terms of serving coffee, but Mr. Serhat has begun to sell also espresso-based coffees in response to the insistence of some of his customers since one year ago. He expresses, with a somewhat compelled attitude, “I do not understand those who consume milk-based coffees when they could drink exquisite Turkish coffee and brewed filtered coffee produced from high-quality beans but what can I do, I make the necessary explanation to everyone and then prepare their coffee as they desire.” In short, you will find only coffee when you visit Cumbalı Kahve. Even to the finest details of all lands and all techniques. But especially you will find brewed filtered coffee and high-quality Turkish coffee. While becoming deeply knowledgeable in regards to the history and landmarks of Balat, you will also learn of where to eat, what to do where in the quarter. And of course, the books… They will also tell you many things. Through the wise manner of Mr. Serhat.
Balat is one of the rare quarters of the city where the older and newer texture of İstanbul may be seen together. Balat quarter is among those neighbourhoods of İstanbul that differ with its narrow streets, old houses, solitary and blind alleys and historical places… Bay window houses, stairway ramps, narrow cobblestone streets, laundry hang up on ropes stretching from house to house, neighbourhood inhabitants sitting on street stairways… Balat offer cafés, teahouses at every street where you could take a break. Different cultures lived together in this quarter for hundreds of years. You can see holy and historical places such as churches, mosques and synagogues together at the same area.
Yazan: Okan Işık / Fotoğraf: Sevinç Doğu Yılmaz
*This article was published in the March-April issue of Marmara Life.